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BR 278: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

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Comments: A perspective changer.

Insights that resonated: 

(1) Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste” is a recent read that I’ve thought about a lot. It is fascinating to dig into the history of a place. I’ve had some insight into the institution of slavery in the United States. But, there’s nothing like the kind of insight a seasoned reporter brings.

It was particularly powerful for me as she draws parallels to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of Dalits in India. She makes the case that calling this “racism” is a simplification. Caste systems go deeper than that.

Stories about caste in India always sadden me. That’s not just because of the heartbreaking stories. They remind me of our collective stupidity and our unwillingness to learn from experience.

Most Indians – regardless of caste – were treated horribly by the British during the years of the British occupation. And, yet, despite all the shared humanity that helped us get through that experience, we didn’t take those lessons forward.

(2) While Isabel Wilkerson focuses on these 3 caste systems, the truth is that caste exists everywhere. Just like other popular western exports, a caste-like hierarchy based on skin color has become the most popular kind around the world. But, there are other systems too. When I lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 months, the dominant caste was Muslim for example. And, if you’ve traveled around the world without a western passport, the global immigration system will never fail to remind you about the importance of the color of your passport, your accent, and the color of your skin.

(3) At its heart, caste systems are about pecking order. We attempt to establish pecking orders wherever we go. Then, we go to crazy extents to maintain them.

This isn’t just true about nations. It is true about any human group. It is likely such pecking orders exist where we work – some function is the equivalent of the “dominant caste” and does all it can to preserve its status.

(4) It is hard to empathize with groups below the pecking order if you haven’t been there. That’s part of the human condition too. Reading stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book is one thing. Experiencing it every day is another.

We live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This place likely has more immigrants per square foot than most places on the planet. And, yet, even in a place where we are not the lone outsiders, we experience situations that remind us of our status in the hierarchy.

This week, it was getting honked and told to “get out of the way” in a parking lot as we were unloading our bikes and kids. Last week, it was being told what to do in a car wash. We have a long catalog of these experiences. It is nearly always an older white/caucasian man who assumes he has the authority to tell us what we should do and how we should behave.

If this is our experience in the Bay Area, I can only begin to imagine the daily slights many others who are lower in the hierarchy experience. It is enough to drive you crazy.

And, yes, the frequency and intensity of these daily slights have likely gone down – on average – in the past decades. But, they’re still around.

(5) It takes a lot to see through false narratives of those who seek to use it for their gain. As Seth beautifully described, identity is often used against us.

We can hope for mature responses from time to time (this one warmed my heart).

But, I don’t see any way out of pecking orders and caste system. I think it is a side effect of our fallibility.

(6) While I don’t believe we’ll ever live in a world without arbitrary hierarchies, I do hope for progress toward that ideal. In a few years, the US will have as much of its history without slavery being legal as it spent with that institution.

I hope we’ll cross many more such milestones and move closer to a world where we spend more time thinking about what we have in common vs. what is different. Over time, maybe we’ll extend that to the plants and animals we’re blessed to share this space with. Before it is too late – at any rate.

The only way that will happen though is if we construct the kind of society that doesn’t gloss over our past. Our history is full of bloody wars and cruelty toward each other for arbitrary reasons. We have much to learn from all that bloodshed and suffering.

The more time we spend understanding our past, the more we will be able to understand the imperfections in our culture/community/country in the present.

No culture or country is perfect.

The problem is when we think we are.

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BR 277: Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

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Comments: This book was a classic Eric Weiner book – lots of fascinating stories artfully weaved together with humor. A fun read and one for the bookshelf for when you’re in the mood for it.

Insights that resonated: 

(1) “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” | Plato

(2) “Walking quiets the mind without silencing it completely.” | Eric Weiner, Geography of Genius

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BR 276: On the clock by Emily Guendelsberger

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Comments: Emily G spent 2 months each in an Amazon warehouse, an AT&T/Convergys call center, and a McDonalds and compiled her experiences and observations in a fantastic book.

Insights that resonated: The one idea that I kept coming back to was a recognition of the privilege in my life. I get to get a steady paycheck solving puzzles that are sometimes challenge, occasionally difficult, but never hard. However, the average hourly worker’s life is the exact opposite – an unsteady paycheck and a hard job.

There are many memorable anecdotes that will stay with me – customers throwing coffee and sauce at McDonalds, getting hourly pay deducted for a bathroom break at Convergys, chugging free pain medication at Amazon, Amazon colleagues doing a DIY root canal at home to avoid missing work and paying a dentist, among others.

It made me ponder the effects of global trade and technology while also considering the possibility of Universal Basic Income.

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BR 275: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Comments: A fascinating peek into the diary of the most powerful man in the world at the time.

Insights that resonated:  The one word that I’ll remember the book by is “perspective.”

“Keep perspective” seems to be the one piece of advice Marcus reflects on the most. He does this by constantly reminding himself of death.

In doing so, he reflects on the futility of chasing fame and sensory pleasures. And, he doesn’t seem to tire of reminding himself of his place in the world – that of an evolutionary speck – in these reflections.

Marcus Aurelius was probably the most powerful person in the world at the time. So, the nature of these notes are all the more impressive given the immense power he held. He clearly passed his stoic examinations with flying colors.

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BR 274: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

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Comments: It is so amazing to think about the sheer power of making insights accessible. Seneca’s notes were written two centuries ago.. but so many are still relevant today.

Insights that resonated: A few among many that stood out to me –

  • All ideas with merit are common property (more)
  • Treat everyone as you’d treat your superiors.
  • Spend less time mourning your friend and instead go ahead and make one. (more)
  • There is nothing a wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity will force on him.
  • Something that can never be learnt too thoroughly can never be said too often.
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BR 273: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou

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Comments: A practical book for the first time manager. I’ve enjoyed Julie’s blog posts and think she comes across as positive and authentic. She did so here too.

Insights that resonated: The premise of the book is – be thoughtful about how you manage your team and keep adapting your style and processes as time passes. I thought Julie delivered on that with lots of insights from her time leading a fast growing design team.

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BR 272: A Guide to the Good Life by William B Irvine

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Comments: If you have any interest in philosophy or stoicism, this book would be in the “Read ASAP” list. It is an awesome Stoicism 101 – the sort of book that could be a course in Stoic philosophy.

Insights that resonated: While there were individual lessons like negative visualization or many notes on focusing on the process that reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita, the best thing the book did was inspire more reading. Following this, I began compiling notes/principles that resonated and began reading the trifecta of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.

Thank you, William Irvine, for a beautiful synthesis.

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BR 271: The Socrates Express by Eric Weiner

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Comments: Eric Weiner makes philosophy and great philosophers accessible. This book is a must read for anyone who is curious about the life and work of great philosophers. Eric brings together a witty travelogue, stories about the lives of great philosophers, a summary of their work, and insights about his attempts at applying their lessons. It changed how I thought about philosophy and philosophers – I’m grateful.

Insights that resonated: 

1. Nearly every great philosopher made their impact by sharing powerful observations about the world and the human condition. They had their own distinct style and approach to making these observations. Some did it with a lot of emotions, others with characteristic pessimism or self deprecation, and so on.

Socrates, however, was unique in only leaving behind a method. Socrates’ legacy isn’t about what he wrote. In fact, he wrote almost nothing. Everything we know about him is thanks to his student Plato,

His legacy, instead, is defined by his approach to thoughtful conversation – the “Socratic method” that relies on questions to spur critical thinking.

It is a powerful way to think about legacy. A legacy that is defined by the how instead of the what.

2. Stoics are not pessimists. They believe everything happens for a reason, the result of a thoroughly rational order. Unlike grumpy Schopenhauer, they believe we are living in the best of all possible worlds, the only possible world. Not only does the Stoic consider the glass half full; he finds it a miracle he has a glass at all—and isn’t it beautiful? He contemplates the demise of the glass, shattered into a hundred pieces. and appreciates it even more. He imagines life had he never owned the glass.
He imagines a friend’s glass breaking and the consolation he’d offer. He
shares his beautiful glass with others, for they, too, are part of the logos,
or rational order.

“Joyful Stoic” is not an oxymoron, says William Irvine, a professor
of philosophy at Wright State University and a practicing Stoic. He ex-
plains: “Our practice of Stoicism has made us susceptible to little out-
bursts of joy. We will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we
are, living the life we are living, in the universe we happen to inhabit.” I
confess: that sounds appealing.

3. Adversity anticipated is adversity diminished

4. The sound of the true is drowned out by the noise of the new.

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BR 270: Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Comments: This is a fantastic book on writing. A true masterpiece. As an added bonus, it has plenty of wisdom about skills, practice, and life.

Insights that resonated: I’ve shared a few passages that resonated deeply here. My favorite is the one below.

Why are we talking about sentences?
Why no talk about the work as a whole, about shape, form, genre, the book, the feature story, the profile, even the paragraph?

The answer is simple.
Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head.
In your head.
Did no one ever tell you this?
That is the writer’s life.
Never imagine you’ve left the level of the sentence behind.

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BR 269: Debt by David Graeber

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Comments: There are a few special books that change our perspective by telling us the story of our past. “A Splendid Exchange” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel” do so from the lens of trade and conquest. “The Accidental Superpower” views the past from the lens of changing superpowers. “Sapiens” does so from the lens of human evolution. And, “Debt” does so from the lens of… well.. debt.

With every one of these books, we may not agree with everything the author says. That’s expected when you’re attempting to synthesize thousands of years of human history. But, these books are worth reading because understanding what came before us helps put into context what we’re experiencing today.

And, every once in a while, they also helps provide clues about what might lie ahead. History doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes.

Insights that resonated: 

1. The notion that money began because of barter is a myth. Barter is simply a logical sounding story made up by economists. To understand money, we need to look at credit/debt.

2. It is fascinating how there were similar arcs of progress in different places around the world. As different as these people and places were, there were still strong similarities in the way civilization progressed.

3. While luck plays a massive role in our lives (determines ~70% of our outcomes by my estimation) today, that role was even arguably larger (>90%) in the past. If you were born in the wrong family, you were stuck, screwed, or likely to die a brutal death.